Hear me out: It’s not so bad to lose against losing teams. Bad for the ego? Sure. Embarrassing? A little. Indicative of imminent collapse? Eh, let’s pump the breaks. The benefits far outweigh the purely self-conscious pitfalls.
The Denver Nuggets have lost four of their last matchups, not in spectacular fashion, but more with the energy one has when looking for a reason to cancel plans. That is, when anything — a slight variation in the weather, “Could this headache mean I’m coming down with something?” (you’re dehydrated), outfit fatigue — turns into a divine reason to casually bail. Certainly, a 21-point loss to the Bulls isn’t great, but the Bulls, along with the Spurs, Nets and Raptors, have more reasons to win right now than the Nuggets do to not lose.
Denver, as head coach Mike Malone pointed out in his postgame following the team’s loss in Toronto, has been leading the West since December. They are leading the West so decisively that this last string of losses still has them out ahead of the trailing second-place Memphis Grizzlies by four games. That’s a big margin! And with big margins, teams lose urgency. It’s what makes losing spirals so hard to snap out of, and it’s what can make winning look automatic.
The difference lately (and why I’ll wager there is no reason for Denver or its fans to panic) is that many of the losing teams the Nuggets have faced are in desperation mode. Save for the Spurs, each of these other franchises have a runway to shore themselves up for the playoffs... which is getting shorter by the day.
Toronto is struggling for a play-in berth, the Bulls could still get there, and the Nets, though they currently sit fifth, are working to gain the kind of ground, self-belief and momentum that’s eluded the franchise all season. There is a kind of clarity that only desperation brings and all these teams have it. The Nuggets just haven’t had to look out at the landscape of the league through a lens tinged with anything other than gold for months.
Where opponent desperation does not bode well for Denver is in how jarring it’s looked watching the Nuggets try and troubleshoot through these last four contests. As Malone’s pointed out, the team’s lost games because it’s become lackadaisical and lost — as in, they’ve vanished — entire quarters.
“We gotta have more awareness of the energy other teams are bringing, and be able to change it,” Jamal Murray said in Toronto when asked about what he and his teammates have learned from their most recent losses.
Thus far, Denver has only looked surprised, and searchingly at one another, when a losing team has walloped them. Toronto used quick, deft cutting, and piled up around the glass — a place where Nikola Jokic typically dominates unquestioned — to overwhelm Denver. Chicago pulled away with their speed and caught the Nuggets ball-watching on the defensive end. The Spurs flourished when they pushed the pace to pressure and exploit the gaps in Denver’s defense — that, and the Nuggets didn’t bother guarding their outside shots because, probably, Denver was thinking This is the Spurs.
Desperate teams will work harder, and faster, at capitalizing on weak spots. Poking and pressuring where a technically better team might ease off and fall back instead on their skill and strong suits. Desperate teams win ugly, and the Nuggets have, for much of this season, only won very beautiful basketball games.
“Everybody we play is playing for something,” Malone said after the loss in Toronto, “Maybe we’ve gotten soft with success.”
The deceptive silver lining for Denver comes with the reality that they could stand to lose a slew more games of their remaining 13 and clinch number one in the West. That they decide to stay in “chill mode”, as Malone put it, from here on out. The real silver lining is to use this last volatile stretch to their advantage, especially when playing teams facing down their own futility.
The Nuggets haven’t made it out of the West under Malone’s tenure, haven’t made good on the duo of Murray and perennial MVP Jokic, or the momentum the team has rolled through the majority of their regular seasons with. In the playoffs, Denver tends to get bogged down in what has worked, rather than game plan for the ugly, volatile basketball that winning four series in a row tends to require.
Murray has said he’s happy his team is being tested now, and Malone has called it a “tremendous opportunity” for the team to learn from. What will be telling from now through April 9 is whether Denver decides to take anything from these desperate lessons worse-off teams are giving them and implement their takeaways when it counts. To look ugly is a lot better than looking lost.